Harris’s Senate Seat Up in Air With Top Pick Ensnared in Ad Feud

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s bid to replace Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate may be complicated by $34 million in unpaid bills for a contract his office arranged to provide voter education before the November election.

The state controller, Betty Yee, has refused to pay the contract between Padilla’s office and Washington strategic communications firm, SKDKnickerbocker, to produce ads and conduct other outreach instructing Californians how to vote safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. Yee says Padilla didn’t have the authority to spend the money.

Harris’s Senate Seat Up in Air With Top Pick Ensnared in Ad Feud

Padilla is considered a frontrunner to fill Harris’s seat in the Senate when she is sworn in as vice president next month. Padilla and Yee are both Democrats.

Latino groups have lobbied Governor Gavin Newsom to choose Padilla, 47, a two-term secretary of state who also served in the California state senate and as president of the Los Angeles City Council. He would be the first Hispanic senator from California, a state that is about 40% Latino.

The contracting controversy has created thorny issues for Newsom, who will appoint Harris’s replacement, and may be asked to explain how he will pay the contract if he chooses Padilla.

The dispute over the voter-education contract arranged by Padilla’s office has intensified as Republicans criticized the contract and an anti-tax organization sued Padilla and Yee to block payment of the firm’s bills. Opponents say the funds Padilla’s office sought to tap were intended to go to county registrars to pay coronavirus-related voting costs rather than to pay for multilingual ads produced by a single communications firm that ran in media markets around the state.

Ties to Biden

SKDKnickerbocker was co-founded by Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign and co-chairman of his transition team.

“With 72% of California’s voters having voted by mail in the 2020 primary election, it is unclear why such an expensive contract was needed for the general election,” California state senators Patricia Bates and Jim Nielsen wrote in an opinion article for the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

Padilla’s office says that the contract with SKDKnickerbocker, now called SKDK, was nonpartisan and was designed to reach voters in their native languages – Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Armenian, as well as English and others – through advertisements instructing them how to vote safely, by mail or in-person, during the pandemic.

“This has become a misinformation campaign that’s meant to discredit what has been a successful public education campaign and election in the state of California,” said Padilla spokeswoman Paula Valle.

Valle said Padilla wasn’t notified of the winning bidder until an award letter went out to SKDK.

Funds for Counties

Yee’s office said the funds his office was seeking to tap were for local county officials to cover Covid-related election costs, including additional staffing, postage and ballot printing.

Padilla appealed in an Oct. 20 email to Yee, saying “similar contracting on behalf of counties has been done previously by the SOS as well as other state departments/agencies.”

A spokeswoman for Yee’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking additional comment.

More than 80% of the state’s 22 million registered voters participated in the November election, and 15.4 million Californians voted by mail. It was the highest turnout in a California election since 1976.

Newsom has acknowledged that he’s being lobbied by numerous candidates for Harris’s Senate seat and says he hasn’t set a timetable for making a choice. His office didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the contracting controversy involving Padilla’s office.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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